By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 20, 2010 at 3:58AM
There were several reasons to anticipate Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist." The French animator's previous feature, 2003's "Triplets of Belleville," was a surreal masterpiece of conceptual wonder, at once classically entertaining and marvelously bizarre. As one of the most important animators working today, Chomet's long-awaited follow-up attempts a feat that sounds impossible for almost anyone but him: Bringing slapstick genius Jacques Tati back to life. Based on an unproduced screenplay that Tati wrote in 1956 and allegedly composed as a tribute to his estranged daughter, "The Illusionist" attempts to resurrect Tati while also providing Chomet with the opportunity to inject the project with his own particular flair. It fulfills those massive expectations only by being good enough. Tati lives, but the movie flounders.
Despite its star, "The Illusionist" belongs to Chomet from the first frame. Like "Triplets of Belleville," the story begins with a black-and-white performance and then turns to color. Chomet's distinctive 2-D animation, replete with elegant line drawings and an advanced color palette, swiftly conveys the idea of an animated Tati world, where gestures speak louder than words, and makes it clear that Chomet's reliance on animated pantomime in "Triplets" formed a kind of Tati homage that has now been taken to its most extreme realization.
Following the titular down-on-his-luck performer as he drifts through an endless stream of dead-end magician gigs, Chomet develops a moving caricature of Tati's world, viewing the middle-aged man as a droll figure surrounding by fast-paced indifference. Audiences go wild for the rock band that precedes his performance, but drain the room during his standard rabbit and hat routine. Tati always played a solitary figure, but the illusionist character exudes a combination of desolation and boredom that suggests an additional dimension of sorrow that he never quite explored. In that sense, "The Illusionist" successfully relates Chomet's assumptions about the movie that might have been.
The opening scenes contain delightful simplicity. Chomet patiently sketches out the details of the illusionist's aimless life, as he gradually assumes a curious paternal bond with young Alice, a teenager on the brink of adulthood. After encountering Alice mopping the floors following a countryside performance, the illusionist allows her to tag along with him on his trip back to the big city. Once there, they quickly settle into home life, with the illusionist crashing on the couch and Alice paying rent with soup. He keeps her entertained, but eventually can't hide the sad truth of his dead-end existence.
These scenes maintain a gentle storybook feel, but whenever Chomet tries to imitate Tati's filmmaking style, the movie automatically loses momentum. In his six features, Tati could let his static camera run as he explored the unlikely corners of an environment that his bumbling protagonists usually found hilariously inscrutable. But in this context, Chomet's attempts at replicating Tati's unique sense of timing run counter to the narrative, which runs under 90 minutes (Tati's films often ran twice as long). One extended sight gag about an ill-fated carwash aptly mimics Tati's style, but distracts from the central storyline and deflates its emotion.
Chomet's creation of a posthumous performance means, if nothing else, that younger viewers unfamiliar with the French icon's filmography may want to check it out for more of the same lovable klutz. But while "The Illusionist" hardly disservices Tati's talents, it doesn't fully inhabit them, either. He's more akin to a ghostly puppet brought to life by Chomet's imagination, much like the larger-than-life Fred Astaire in the lively sequence that opened "Triplets of Belleville." Chomet acknowledges this duality a little too openly: At one point, the illusionist actually stumbles into a theater screening Tati's "Mon Oncle," and passes a poster for "Triplets of Belleville" -- an overt nod to the hybrid experience Chomet hoped to create.
Sadly, while Tati's career was marked by his increasing lust for invention on a vast production scale, "The Illustionist" is too slight. Tati only completed six features, and this does not retroactively comprise his seventh. It has plenty of other solid delights, though: Chomet sweetly depicts the father-daughter relationship, ably constructing the heartbreaking finish in which they both realize their inevitably conflicting destinies. But the Tati touch never fully solidifies, leaving no lasting effect. In this case, just good enough isn't quite good for "The Illusionist" to do justice to the legacy bend it.
criticWIRE grade: B+